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NBA Rookie Of The Year Watch – Jan. 8

Basketball Insiders’ Ariel Pacheco looks at which rookies have impressed early on and paced the race to the 2020-21 Rookie of the Year award.

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We’re only about two weeks into the season, but it’s never too early to take a look at some end-of-season awards. And this year’s Rookie of the Year award is shaping up to be an exciting one — a lot of different players have made a name for themselves early on.

So, while this list is bound to change as the season goes on, here’s our first look at which rookies are performing the best to start the season. 

6. Payton Pritchard, Boston Celtics

It’s rare when someone drafted as the 26th pick has an immediate impact. His 8.3 points per game and 3.2 assists per game may not be as productive as the other players on this list, but Pritchard’s boxscore doesn’t tell the full whole story. He’s been an essential piece to the Boston Celtics’ rotation, posting a 9.8 net rating. In his 206 minutes of action so far, the Celtics are a +43.

Boston’s biggest weakness, meanwhile, has been their depth, so while his contributions have been surprising, they’ve also been sorely needed.

The biggest takeaway from Pritchard’s game is that he just makes the right play. He can work the pick-and-roll, shoot it a bit and can make the right pass. His 23 points and 8 assists against the Toronto Raptors were impressive, while his game-winning putback against the Miami HEAT shows that he knows when to be in the right place at the right time. Pritchard has also shown an ability to be effective on the defensive end, impressive as most rookies struggle on that end as they transition to the stronger, faster NBA game. 

It’s unlikely that Pritchard finishes the season as a true Rookie of the Year threat, but his contributions have been noteworthy and deserving of recognition. Unfortunately, many of the players ahead of him are simply just more talented, have a bigger role with their squad or both.

5. Patrick Williams, Chicago Bulls

After the Bulls took him with the fourth overall pick, Williams has flashed a unique ability on the court. Not only has he shot 8-of-17 from 3 (47.1%) so far, but he has also flashed potential as a rim protector, ranking third in blocks (0.9) amongst rookies who’ve played at least 4 games. Add those skills to his 6-foot-8, 225-pound frame, and Chicago may have found their core power forward for the future and, maybe, even someone that could consistently play some small-ball 5 down the road.

Williams is only 19 years old and has tons of room to grow as a player. While he’s shown to be a good cutter, he lacks strong on-ball skills and a feel for the game. That should come with time, but if he wants to be a serious contender for Rookie of the Year, Williams will have to overcome those deficits and boost his production. For now, however, Chicago should be happy with what they’ve seen thus far.

4. Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves

The top pick in 2020 has come in and immediately shown an ability to score at all three levels of the court. At 15.4 points per game, Edwards is the leading rookie scorer and is fresh off a career-high, a 26-point outing in a loss to the Portland Trail Blazers. He has a good handle and can score in almost any pick-and-roll situation, while his strength and athleticism help propel him to the basket and overpower defenders anywhere on the court.

That said, Edwards must improve his efficiency. So far, he’s taken a lot of shots, some more ill-advised than others. His True Shooting percentage sits at 49.9%, well below the league average — if he’s to seriously be considered for this award, that number would need to improve drastically.

Edwards could also stand to initiate some contact get more shots at the charity stripe — he’s driven to the basket 38 times, but only attempted 8 free throws as a result of those drives, per NBA.com

When it’s all said and done, don’t be surprised if it’s Edwards you see claiming the award. Still, and while you can expect him to rise up this list, he still has plenty of work to do.

3. James Wiseman, Golden State Warriors

It’s a testament to Wiseman’s ability that he’s this high on this list, but the rookie center, who played just three games in college and missed the Warriors’ entire training camp and preseason, has been that good.

Wiseman busted through the gate, scoring 19 and 18 points in his first two games, respectively. He’s cooled since, but he’s still posting strong averages of 11.6 points, 6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game. And, given he’s only playing about 21 minutes a game, those numbers would seem thoroughly impressive.

Wiseman has also shown that he has NBA-level range, hitting five of his 12 three-point attempts (41.6%) on the season.

Wiseman could easily be first on this list, but a rough 3-game stretch really hurt him here. He’s also, at times, been played off the court due to his inability to guard the perimeter. And, as a seven-footer with his kind of athleticism, Wiseman’s 46.8% field goal percentage is disappointing, to say the least.

He’ll be a legit contender for this award all season long. But, with so few minutes under his belt between college and the NBA, Wiseman will need to iron out his game quite a bit — expect him to do just that as he continues to see the court.

2. LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets

After a rough debut, Ball has been on a tear for the Hornets.

Excluding that first game, Ball has 13.4 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game while shooting 37.5% from three-point range. He leads all rookies in assists per game (4.9) and, when he’s on the court, looks to have the best on-ball instincts of any rookie in his class. Ball came in as an elite passer, but has already proven a strong rebounder at his position as well. Meanwhile, he’s scored in double digits in six of his eight games.

Suffice it to say, Charlotte is happy with their third overall pick.

Ball was expected to be a consistent contender for this award out of the gate — and he hasn’t shown anything that would prove otherwise. Like almost everyone, his defense and efficiency could use some improvement, but that will come with time. But, if he can continue at his current level, Ball should have no issue wrangling the top spot on this list.

1. Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento Kings

With respect to Ball, Haliburton has been the best rookie this season. No other rookie has had quite the same impact on their team’s winning ways, especially in his role: Sacramento is 4-2 with Haliburton, 0-2 without him.

Haliburton has averaged 11.7 points per game to go along with 4.7 assists. He’s knocked down 13 of his 27 three-point attempts (48.1%) and has played stellar defense. He’s already made himself a crucial part of the Kings’ rotation and, down the stretch, has shown a knack for hitting the clutch shot. Of the players on this list, Haliburton’s 2.0 net rating is second only to Pritchard’s.

He did miss two games due to a wrist injury. But, in his return, Haliburton put up a strong 17 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals and a block, not to mention a back-breaking three-pointer to seal the game.

Despite having played just six games, Haliburton has the savvy of a vet. And, when he’s not on the court, the Kings seemingly crumble.

If that, combined with everything else he’s done, isn’t enough to get Haliburton the top spot on this list, what is?

It’s just two weeks into the season, so no one has separated themselves too far from the pack in the race to Rookie of the Year. That said, it has the look of a race that should excite all season long — expect to see other impact rookies like Cole Anthony, Deni Avdija and others make a case for themselves as this list shifts throughout the season.

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